Album Review: Complete Mountain Almanac – Complete Mountain Almanac

[Bella Union; 2023]

A year is a long time in the world, at least to us humans. To the earth itself each passing year is just the continuation of the cyclical seasons; winter buries the world in ice before greenery blossoms once it thaws, all for the cold to set in once again. The planet keeps moving through it all, even as natural resources get plundered and climates go haywire. But as the earth goes through its motions, we measure time as it elapses. Days into weeks into months into years. 

And it took many years for Complete Mountain Almanac to come into existence. Sometime in the late 2000s, Norwegian-born, Sweden-based singer and composer Rebekka Karijord and American-born, Italy-based poet, dancer, and multimedia artist Jessica Dessner met. An immediate understanding and fondness developed, and over the years the two stayed in touch. Karijord started concocting and conjuring ideas for a nature-themed album, a record that went through each month of the year; “it would be 12 pieces about nature and climate change,” she explains.

Karijord invited Dessner to contribute lyrics (“I thought it would be an instrumental record, but I soon felt the subject was too massive to write about in an abstract way”), to help give life to the themes and musical ideas. After a year or so of collaboration, Dessner was diagnosed with breast cancer, postponing the project’s creation. But as Dessner thankfully recovered, she found the project a helpful aid alongside recovery. “I was able to use the structure of the year, because that’s how it is with cancer — there’s this sensation of using time, getting through a year at a time, with this cycle of nature,” she details. The work continued and before long Complete Mountain Almanac came into its final form.

The missing pieces were Dessner’s twin brothers, Aaron and Bryce (of The National), who became involved after hearing the demos of the album. All four artists came together in Paris’ St. Germain studios to bring the music to life, recording all the tracks live. And the Dessner brothers have their fingerprints all over the album. Their intricate and gentle guitar playing the murmuring backbone of the tracks here. Even as dark foamy waves of electric guitar are whipped up on “June” they still know to keep to the background. It’s Karijord’s haloed voice and Jessica Dessner’s words that are the main players here.

At its best, the album strums out a stark moment, like a voice calling for help. “I need you to wake up” Karijord pleads on opening track “January”, a cautionary warning as glacial strings add a pensive and quiet sense of alarm. Elsewhere on “April” two sides of Karijord push and pull against each other: “I am faithful / I’m not faithful” she intones over and over. What sticks though are moments where Dessner’s words fall across two planes, the cancer in her body a sadly fitting metaphor for the state of the planet (and vice versa). Over percolating woodwind and rummaging guitars, “February” talks of “her body intact,” while on delicate final song “December” perhaps the most forthright assertation unveils itself: “The body betrays itself / The body it heals itself.”

Where a little bit of focus is lost is when Karijord becomes almost incantatory with Dessner’s words, repeating phrases with ambiguous meanings but not coming out the other end with any greater sense of purpose (“April”, “October”, and “November” in particular). Though most of the compositions are based on ornate fingerpicked guitars from the Dessner twins, the additional features are perhaps the most stilling. Bryce’s string arrangements (performed by the Malmö Symphonic Orchestra) have something of a late Scott Walker vibe about them, often moving with a judicious heft. Elsewhere the softly echoing horns on “August”, the siren-like wordless coos dissolving into an ambient lull on “September”, and the swaying piano and backtrack effects on “June” make for memorable moments that are pleasant to revisit and sink into.

What you won’t find on Complete Mountain Almanac is a discernible sense of seasonal shifting. While an autumnal tone might be found on “October” and fittingly chilly synths on the winter months, the 12 tracks largely move about the same climate. And it’s a fitting mood for the album: strokes of dark and greyed hues, a reposeful sense of alarm always murmuring in the background, and tragedy laying bare to be found. “Here she is / She’s still here,” Karijord concludes on “February.” Maybe that line is Jessica Dessner talking of herself, or just about the earth itself. Regardless, the way forward is clear: take care of the body that is ours, because every moment is sacred. Every day, every week, every month, and every year.